The Duel in Houston: Should Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett Be the Texans' Starter?

The Texans have a quarterback dilemma. Should the team finally give Ryan Mallet his chance on the big stage?

The Texans were, as of three weeks ago, sitting in a pretty good position. 

With a loaded defense led by the absolute monster J.J. Watt, an emerging wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins who is likely to break out this season, and the very effective Arian Foster running the ball, the Texans figured to make noise in the AFC South and potentially get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. 

The only thing they seemed to lack was a reliable quarterback, with both Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett gunning for the job.

The battle between Hoyer and Mallett, despite the lack of household names, is interesting because both have spent significant time riding the pine behind Tom Brady in New England. Their offensive coordinator during their time in New England where they weren’t contributing much offense? Bill O’Brien.

But O'Brien's decision at quarterback became increasingly more important when Foster went down with a severe groin injury. Foster figures to be back in the mix at the earliest by Week 6. 

To help O'Brien in his decision (because I'm sure he's reading this, right?), I wanted to look at whose career numbers suggest they'd be better for the Texans in 2015. 

To determine this I've analyzed the career production of both Hoyer and Mallett using numberFire's signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). 

The beauty of NEP is that it goes beyond simple statistics such as touchdowns thrown and yards thrown to measure a player's performance above expectation. If a quarterback passes for eight yards on a 3rd-and-10, sure they've added eight yards, but they haven't really done much for their team, as it likely results in a punt. Conversely if they throw for five yards on a 3rd-and-4, well, they've moved the chains and made an effective play. Those plays add up over the course of a season, and NEP accounts for them.

So what do the numbers say about who should get the job?

Brian Hoyer

Brian Hoyer has largely been a journeyman in the NFL since his arrival with the Patriots in 2009. But after finally getting his chance in 2013, his season was shortened with an ACL tear. Hoyer rebounded to win the starting gig in 2014 over the beleaguered Johnny Manziel, but his season was full of ups and downs as he led the Browns to a 7-9 record. 

Year Team Drop Backs Passing NEP Passing NEP per Drop Back Passing Successes Passing Success Rate
2009 Patriots 29 -4.72 -0.16 15 51.72%
2010 Patriots 15 4.50 0.30 7 46.67%
2011 Patriots 1 1.16 1.16 1 100.00%
2012 Cardinals 57 -11.76 -0.21 22 38.60%
2013 Browns 102 2.91 0.03 44 43.14%
2014 Browns 463 20.60 0.04 205 44.28%
667 12.68 0.02 294 44.08%

Hoyer’s career numbers overall aren’t that impressive. In his two seasons in Cleveland, Hoyer did display a middling consistency with a Passing Success Rate, the percentage of drop backs that led to positive NEP gains, hovering around 44%, and low, but positive, Passing NEP scores on a per-drop-back basis.

His 0.04 Passing NEP per drop back in 2014 exceeded that of Colin Kaepernick (0.04), Cam Newton (0.04), and Jay Cutler (0.00), so while not exactly lighting up the scoreboard in Cleveland, he was doing more for his team last season that many quarterbacks making multiple mints more than he was. 

And Hoyer actually deployed stealthy success in terms of his deep ball accuracy, grading out as the seventh most accurate quarterback in the league with passes traveling at least 20 yards in the air among those taking at least 60% of their teams snaps per ProFootballFocus. Hoyer’s deep ball accuracy of 46.3% dwarfed that of Mallett’s 25%, although Mallett only took eight shots down the field in 2014, so the sample size makes true comparison difficult. 

In terms of total accuracy Hoyer and Mallett were much more similar, with Hoyer and Mallett posting 64.5% and 62.5% accuracy ratings respectively.

With a hurt Foster, the Texans will need to generate more offense via the pass. Hoyer's accuracy advantage over Mallett, and positive efficiency in the last two season speak well (relatively) on Hoyer's behalf. 

Ryan Mallett

Ryan Mallett in terms of career track record still remains a question mark. But his small sample size of NFL action that we can judge isn’t pretty.

Year Team Drop Backs Passing NEP Passing NEP per Drop Back Passing Successes Passing Success Rate
2012 Patriots 4 -2.11 -0.53 1 25.00%
2014 Texans 76 0.02 0.00 30 39.47%
80 -2.09 -0.03 31 38.75%

Comparatively, Mallett fell short of Hoyer in 2014, the only year in which he’s gotten any real opportunity. On a per-drop-back basis, Mallett contributed negatively negatively nor positively to the Texans’overall offensive attack, but again, his sample size is too small to make any definitive conclusions.

Mallett’s sub-40% Passing Success Rate is a bit troubling because it suggests he may be less reliable than Hoyer in terms of making something positive happen on his drop backs. 

Another statistic working against Mallett, per ProFootballFocus, is his accuracy percentage when his time in the pocket is greater than 2.5 seconds. On the 29 drop backs meeting this criteria in 2014, Mallett was completed only 44.8% of his passes, whereas Hoyer was able to connect on 53.8% of his passes. Basically, if the play called for Mallett to let routes develop, he wasn’t likely to deliver the goods. Because this will likely be a more frequent occurrence with Foster out the first six weeks at least, Mallett would likely struggle more than Hoyer in this regard.  

But with less than 100 career NFL passes under his belt, it’s hard to get a true read of how good Mallett can be. And there’s the rub; Mallett’s success can only come with more in-game experience, but the in-game experience he requires probably means the Texans will have to temper expectations in 2015.

The Verdict

Considering the disappointing results in the admittedly small sample size of Ryan Mallet’s body of work, all indicators suggest that the Texans should give the starting nod to Hoyer as their best chance to win now and stay afloat until Foster returns.

But in the event that the Texans get to a point of being out of contention, they should probably give Mallett the ball to see what they truly have in him because they won’t really find out until he’s given a shot.

Expect Hoyer to win the job, but if Foster’s return is delayed, and/or the Texans start off very poorly, don’t be surprised if Mallett gets some mid-season action in as well.